Thursday, 11 December 2014

Anselm Kiefer and Paul Celan at the Royal Academy

In recent weeks I've been reading Paul Celan again. I move in and out of the Celanian moments in my life (when I say "moments", these can last for weeks or months). I don't find it possible to read Celan all the time - I get tired and sad if I go on for too long, though his work can also be very clarifying in the right proportion. I have never been able to forget the comment by Michael Hamburger, one of Celan's most dedicated translators: "From the first my engagement with the work of Celan had been difficult and sporadic. Had it become a full-time occupation and specialisation, it could have driven me into suicide, as it did his friend and interpreter Peter Szondi."

Anyway, I have been reading John Felstiner's wonderful translations, and I have also finally started reading Felstiner's biography Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. I'm also about to dip (or dive) into Pierre Joris's new translations of Celan's later works, Breathturn into Timestead. But I came back to Celan this time most notably through the Anselm Kiefer exhibition currently showing at the Royal Academy in London, which will end in a few days.

For someone (me) who is mostly drawn to art created one hundred years ago or more, Kiefer's work seemed a bit alien and intimidating. In a post-World War II Germany he created controversial works touching provocatively on Nazi symbolism, and has otherwise explored the threads of German history, its influences, and its own influence on the world. Many of his works are massive in size, overwhelming. My way in, and my main reason for going to the exhibition, was the influence of Paul Celan's works.

Kiefer has many artworks directly inspired by Celan's poems and several of them were in the exhibition. The paintings Margarete and Sulamith, directly inspired by 'Deathfugue', appeared side by side. Next to them, on the wall, was John Felstiner's translation in full of 'Deathfugue' - this translation is particularly famous for how it daringly and effectively weaves lines of the original German in with the English translation. I was glad to see other people reading the poem attentively.

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margareta
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers

I really loved For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night, among others. One of the "lead book" works, Black Flakes, I also found especially striking:

Anselm Kiefer, Black Flakes. Private collection, c/o Museum Kuppersmuhle fur Moderne Kunst. Photo Privatbesitz Famille Grothe/copyright Anselm Kiefer

This painting is embedded with an enormous lead book and it features lines from the poem 'Black Flakes', a particularly heart-wrenching poem Celan wrote after the loss of his mother, from which he never recovered.

Autumn bled all away, Mother, snow burned me through:
I sought out my heart so it might weep, I found - oh the summer's breath,
it was like you.
Then came my tears. I wove the shawl.

(translation by John Felstiner)

I find it difficult to write about visual art, and you will find far more thorough reviews of the exhibition elsewhere. But there were a couple of things I thought particularly worth noting.

The size of many of these works is such that it has a very immersive effect. With works such as Black Flakes, I had a feeling that Kiefer had directly transferred the broken, scratchy, beautiful images in his mind directly onto the canvas. I find it very interesting to think about the pictures in others' minds, and I have sometimes asked people to describe how they "see" their consciousness, the mind's eye, the film inside your head, however you want to describe it. Mine is a mix of constant palimpsest film-reels, often with music or with words faintly (or clearly) heard, sometimes with the written words themselves. Perhaps nothing unusual, but I have a feeling that this is different for everyone. These works were so enveloping that I seemed to be seeing behind the artist's eyes. This was an especially fascinating impression because of my feeling that Celan's poems are transferring the images in his mind directly onto the page, in a way that few other poems achieve.

The other thing is that some of Kiefer's works produced a strange aural impression on me. The gallery wasn't empty and it was far from silent in there, but when I looked at some of the canvases, including the Celan works, I seemed to hear a rustling. I don't know why and I wouldn't say it necessarily represented anything, but it is very unusual for me to have aural impressions when I look at works of art. I had a confused feeling that the rustling I "heard" was something to do with the sounds of silence.


  1. Thank you for this post on the exhibition. Because of it I booked a ticket and drove up to London before dawn on Saturday to get there.

    1. Well, I'm really pleased to hear that! (I was aware that as far as this post being a review of the exhibition, it was very last-minute as it was only on for a few more days...)

      I hope you found it just as fascinating as I did.